Smart writers write for smart readers. Better, smart writers create smart readers. The Wall Street Journal writes for business experts, who became business experts by reading the Wall Street Journal.
You treasure your readers by the way you treat them, word by word.
Who are your readers? For clarity, we write for “general readers,” meaning people who are not experts on the subject, even if they are. In fact, the general reader is a fiction, a composite of the skills and knowledge of actual readers. If the readers are general, their knowledge is general, not specific, so we have to explain things to them. Smart writers take responsibility for their readers’ understanding.
For example, sometimes you have to use a technical term your readers might not know. If they stumble over the undefined term, they keep reading, but they’re not understanding. And they’re not paying attention because subconsciously they’re still wondering about that term. Readers who wonder aren’t paying attention. So you define the term.
Writers worry that defining might come off as condescension, fearing to offend readers by defining a term they might already know. Forget that. Readers will thank you for not assuming they know the term, and a good definition sharpens what follows it.
You have to use common sense in choosing what to define. You probably wouldn’t define “mayor,” but you might define “credit default swap.” Actually, in some cases, you might define “mayor,” for instance to differentiate that official from the city manager. Context determines what you define; Fine Cooking and Computerworld have different thresholds. And too much defining becomes tedious, so limit the number of technical terms.
How smart are your readers? They’re just as smart as you are, but they don’t know what you know. You know more because you researched the subject, not because you’re somehow superior. When you explain things to them, you’re not “dumbing down” the material, you’re “smarting up” your readers.
Some writers picture their readers as they write. Some write for specific, actual persons, usually not a good idea because you know what they know, but not what other readers know. I asked Bill Blundell if he wrote for a specific reader. He replied that he wrote for “the guy on the next barstool.” I asked if that guy really wasn’t Bill himself. He grinned and said, “No, but he’s very like me.”
If you make your readers smarter, they’ll keep reading you.